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Tone Pairs - The Mandarin Language Hack You've Been Waiting For


I’m going to let you guys in on one of my favorite semi-not-very-top-secret tricks for learning Chinese and improving your pronunciation.

It’s something no one told me during my initial stages of learning, and it took me ages to realize how important it is: mastering pronunciation of tone pairs.

“Tone pairs” is simply the way we refer to two tones pronounced back-to-back.

For example, měiguó (美国) is a 3-2 tone pair because měi is 3rd tone and guó is 2nd tone.

What I didn’t understand at first is that so much of Chinese is made up of two-character words and terms. An enormous number of verbs, nouns and most of all adjectives are two characters, and the natural patterns of speech in Mandarin often involves breaking up sentences into two-character pieces.

Check out this Hangout Yangyang did all about tone pairs and practice along with her:

Let’s look at more examples:

wǒ de dì di fēi cháng xǐ huan měi guó de yīn yuè
My little brother really likes American music

In a natural context, I’ve noticed native speakers tend to break the sentence up into two-character bits, taking a (very) brief pause between each pair, almost like, wǒde...dìdi...fēicháng...xǐhuan...měiguóde...yīnyuè. (我的…弟弟…非常…喜欢…美国的…音乐)   

The reasoning here is that you’re taking each distinct idea and creating verbal separation between them – it’s a natural way to speak that maximizes clarity and enhances understanding.

When you think about it, we’d do it much the same way in English, right?

Try saying that sentence out loud: “My little brother really likes American music.” Obviously everyone is different, but odds are you divided it up so that each verbal idea could be heard distinctly. So, something like “My…little brother…really likes…American music.”

So you’re thinking, why on earth am I going on and on about this?

Well, I know that when it came to learning tones in Mandarin, I was so hopeless for so long that I made myself sit down and brute-force attack the situation.

What I realized is that mastering the way tones are pronounced in combination is a huge, critical part of speaking Chinese fluently because these tone pairs reflect how the language is actually spoken.

When you’re trying to string phrases and sentences together, your carefully-practiced individual tones can get jumbled together and sound awkward – it’s a pain I know all too well.

That’s why I picked out and memorized a word for each common tone combination and then practiced that word a ridiculous number of times to get the tone flow down.

It has made my speaking and pronunciation so much smoother and turns learning vocabulary into a much easier process that intertwines it with pronunciation much more closely; you’ll learn a new word and think, oh, it’s just another 3-4 word, easy!

I had a friend visiting from the States a few summers ago, for instance, who was obsessed with watermelon (xīguā, 西瓜)  and loved how easy it is to get on the street here in Shanghai, so I taught him how to say it in Chinese. 

He loved the ring of the 1-1 tone pair so much that when we went travelling, he was able to tell cab drivers to take us to the airport (fēijīchǎng, 飞机场)  just because of how he’d already practiced the 1-1 pairing (I handled the 3rd tone chǎng / 场 part for him!).

Just because, here are the tone pair example words I use for practice and memorization:

Tip: To make sure you're getting the pronunciation right, use Yoyo Chinese's free video-based pinyin chart (link) to help you along. It has audios of all Mandarin sounds in all four tones. It even includes video explanations for difficult Mandarin sounds).

1st tone  - 1st tone: 沟通 (gōutōng) – to communicate or connect, to link 

1st tone - 2nd tone: 新华 (xīnhuá)  - China’s official news agency but also the street I live on (新华路, xīnhuá lù)! 

1-3: 经理 (jīnglǐ) - manager, to manage 

1-4: 方面 (fāngmiàn) - aspect or segment 

2-1: 房间 (fángjiān) - room 

2-2: 灵活 (línghuó) - flexible, quick, nimble (can describe people, companies or even schedules) 

2-3: 提醒 (tíxǐng) - to remind 

2-4: 责任 (zérèn) - responsibility 

3-1: 已经 (yǐjīng) - already 

3-2: 以为 (yǐwéi) - to have believed (usually erroneously) 

3-3: 可以 (kěyǐ) - to be able to, can be (though, by rule, 3-3 combinations are pronounced as 2-3) 

3-4: 礼貌 (lǐmào) - polite (often used in the context of 不礼貌 (bùlǐmào), at least in the Mainland!) 

4-1: 衬衫 (chènshān) - shirt (with long sleeves). I find this to be the most difficult to pronounce. 

4-2: 性格 (xìnggé) - temperament, disposition 

4-3: 办法 (bànfǎ) - way or method (often as 没办法 (méibànfǎ)) 

4-4: 重要 (zhòngyào) - important (consecutive 4th tones sound very serious, which is a nice pneumonic device to remember how to say “important”) 

There are a couple exceptions to tone pairs – two 3rd tones in a row actually turn into 2nd tone-3rd tone, as mentioned above. Yangyang has a whole video that talks about tone changing rules below:

Have you developed any theories, tricks or hacks about studying Chinese? Share them in the comments below – believe me, I need all the help I can get!